Tuesday, November 20, 2007

We could learn from leisurely ride in Paris


We could learn from leisurely ride in Paris
Mary Schmich
November 14, 2007

Those new bikes in Paris are totally cool.

I wanted to write a more artful opening to this column. Maybe I should have started with something breathlessly poetic about pedaling along the banks of the Seine one day last week while the autumn sun glinted off the Eiffel Tower and I heard the crunch of fallen leaves beneath my bicycle wheels?

Or something about whizzing past Notre Dame in the rosy glow of a November dusk, listening to the bells toll?

Or something about the guilty, risky pleasure of doing these things without a helmet, an accessory I saw only once, on a guy I figured had to be American?

All of the above are true. But they can all be boiled down to the simple fact that Paris' new bikes are, in the words of various French people I quizzed at the new bike stations, "genial," "formidable" and "fantastique," which is to say, totally cool.

Mayor Daley was mocked a few weeks ago when he flitted through Paris to check out the latest in Paris public-transit options, a fleet of tawny-gray two-wheelers. But if he manages to bring a program like this to Chicago, that photo of him straddling a French velo won't look so goofy.

Paris' bicycle program is called "velib'" a mix of the word "velo," which means bicycle, and "liberte," which means what it sounds like. They offer the freedom of moving easily around the city and the ability to take a bike at no cost for 30 minutes at a time once you've paid a small subscription fee.

(I didn't understand that "30 minutes at a time" part, which is why I spent a whole afternoon and more money than I'd planned gliding through the Paris streets on my velib'. But that's beside today's point.)

The Paris program started in July, and by December, there should be more than 20,000 bikes at more than 1,400 docking stations. The stations are everywhere, outside cafes and shops and metro stops, in the heart of town and in the far-flung neighborhoods.

People ride from home to work, from work to lunch. They pedal to the dentist or to a movie. They may bike one way and take a cab, bus or train the other.

Here's roughly how the program works:

Either online or at a curbside kiosk, you pay a fee that entitles you to ride for a day (1 euro), a week (5 euros) or a year (29 euros, about $42).

You pick a bike out of a row of identical bicycles, each attached to a short pole. To release the bike, just punch in a code on the pole, or, better yet, swipe the same fare card you use for the bus and metro.

Adjust the seat height, throw your stuff in the front basket and pedal off, often along wide bus lanes also designated for bicycles, ringing your handlebar bell at least once just for fun.

When you've gotten where you're going, roll your bike into the nearest curbside station and plug it back into a pole. Feel free to take another bike later.

Needless to say, Chicago is not Paris.

In the United States, Chicago included, city biking tends to be sport, bicyclists whizzing along busy streets as if they were in the Tour de France. In the land of the Tour de France, city biking isn't so aggressively athletic. People are more likely to pedal around in their fashionable clothes, and at less than gold-medal speeds.

If Chicago were to adopt a velib'-style program -- the city is looking at two proposals, for far fewer bikes -- we'd need more than bicycles.

The culture and the roads would have to change. For all of Chicago's pro-bike efforts, motorists still treat bikes as intruders and too many bicyclists don't know or don't observe road rules.

We also have a thing called snow. But then, so does Lyon, France's second-largest city, which has a very successful bike program.

Seeing how well the Paris bikes are working and the excitement they've stirred in Parisians made me believe that some version of velib' could and should happen here.

With helmets. Better safe than chic.

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